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Showing 1-8 of 8 reviews(3 star). See all 131 reviews
on March 1, 2001
Rhia book describes a set of esthetics that purport to dictate desirable social goals. Can esthetics do this or perhaps more achievably can esthetics influence it. More to the point are the goals described in this book desirable. That depends upon who you are of course.
I grew up in what new urbanists would probably call a paradise. It was a real community in which neighbours were really neighbours. People did sit on their verandahs and converse with their neighbours on the street. There was an understanding that one could borrow things if the owner wasn't using them. It was considered polite to tell the owner if he was there but if he was away one could just borrow the thing and tell him when he came home if one was still using it. In short it was everything new urbanism wants. This was in a moderately large city in Canada.
There were two things wrong with this paradise:
a) it was not about verandahs, facing the street etc. It was about control and conformity. The neighbourhood protected itself by frowning on unexpected behavior. There was an expected range of interests and an expected range of activity. If someone went out of this range, one could expect social sanctions unfailingly. The dark side of Jacobs 'eyes-on-the-street' is Foucault's 'gaze.' The neighbourhood worked as an exercise in power. The verandahs and street life were instruments of that power. Heaven help anyone who had non-standard interests.
b) the neighbourhood was unsustaining. With the growth of the personal rights ethos, the ability of the neighbourhood to control its inhabitants fell away. No longer could the neighbourhood fathers take action to control petty teenage misbehaviour. Instead personal rights and social policy took these controls away from the neighbourhood and gave them to government agencies. As a result the neighbourhood is now perhaps not unsafe but definitely uncomfortable. No one leaves tools or equipment out now in case a neighbour needs to borrow it. Everything is locked up. The doors are firmly closed and neighbours now complain to the police instead of discussing thier joint problems.
New urbanism seems to miss this point. Neighbourhoods are about local power. For some people this produces a comfortable paradise. For those slightly different it creates a jail of conformity. Some people thrive in it. Some peole will be stifled. Neighboourhoods are an exercise in hopefully beneficent control. Architecture does not create this control. It can destroy it certainly and make it impossible but it cannot create it.
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on July 17, 2016
An absolutely fascinating book-not because its arguments make sense to me but because it is written from such an alien perspective. Many of us have grown up in the types of "sprawl" depicted here and take the little brick houses and mini marts and freeway underpasses we see every day for granted. We never stop to think about the wonder of their creation or how an outsider might view the world we live in every day. The book's authors come across as visitors from a foreign culture completely lost and perplexed by simple everyday things in the modern American environment they have found themselves in. It is like watching cavemen try to explain an automobile or a television set. Some of the results are genuinely funny and entertaining. (In one photo caption, for example, it is explained to us that Americans try to fill the dreadful holes created in their souls from not being part of a collective by buying fancy bathtubs with lots of cool gadgets. This will prove both puzzling and thought provoking to the American who dearly cherishes the voluntary family of choice they have built for themselves but just happens to like fancy bathtubs with cool gadgets.) As an argument against sprawl I would have to say it fails. But as an experiment in sociology it succeeds on an entirely different level. When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s I used to think about The Cold War and wonder what a communist from the Soviet Union would think about my ordinary American neighborhood and life. This book may be the closest I will ever come!
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on May 29, 2011
This is a tough book to review, because I am able to appreciate many of the authors' perspectives while thinking they fall into the trap of choosing only the research that proves their thesis while ignoring any studies (or even anecdotal evidence) that would contradict it.

What I've found in intellectual circles (think NPR, etc.) is an unquestioning support for the New Urbanism - the idea (as I state it, not as its "official" manifesto) that cities and city-type towns with heavy public transportation and mixed-use zoning are simply better places to live. The argument is one that we hear often: Cities are cultural, diverse, environmentally sound in their provision of public transportation. The foil to the "perfection" of the ideal city life, in this book and in the thought patterns of those who espouse these ideas, is that the suburbs are culturally dead, wasteful, frustrating. I'm an educated woman and have educated friends - and I would never, ever live in the type of city or "neighborhood development" that the authors advocate.

Why? The authors have all but left out an analysis of human needs (or perhaps the better word is "wants") for their homes. The word "privacy" appears almost never in SUBURBAN NATION, and yet I think this is precisely the reason people want to live in suburbs. They don't want loud, noisy, or ill-behaved people attached to them, and they don't want to have to deal with those who don't keep up their end of the social contract. The suburbs are also home to those most precious of commodities: peace, quiet, and tranquility - almost impossible to find in the types of developments espoused by the authors, who worship the god of Mixed Use Architecture. Nor do the authors cite any of the many studies showing that people experience much greater levels of stress when they are packed on top of each other with no room to breathe - and crime goes up when people are packed in like sardines, which (though not openly espoused) is the natural effect of the New Urbanism. In a suburban lot, you can tune out a crass, ill-behaved neighbor by planting some large hedges. When you have a next-door neighbor in an apartment building who thinks it's his right to blast his stereo at 2 a.m., there's not much you can do besides move.

All of these criticisms aside, I will admit to learning a great deal from this book, including the underlying causes of traffic in the suburbs (the concept of the collector road is one I'd not experienced before, and it's quite an eye-opener). I thought a great deal about the town in which I live, as well as neighboring towns, and I saw examples of the authors' key ideas - not only in those cities that "work" in terms of being pedestrian friendly and offering a sense of community, but also towns in my area that don't "work" as places one would go shopping or meet a friend for lunch. The ironic thing is that the town closest to me that has the strongest "community feel" in its downtown area is also one that is extremely snotty; one simply needs to listen to conversations between well-heeled women and underpaid clerks at overpriced boutiques to want to flee that so-called community and return to one's home in a not culturally interesting, but infinitely more tranquil town.

As you an see from this review, the book made me think quite a lot, and quite deeply. For that reason, I recommend it. But know that you are getting the equivalent of a manifesto rather than an unbiased look at cities, communities, and development. Finally - the authors seem blissfully unaware of the tax effects of their proposed Utopian communities and wave their hands around this topic, as if such problem would dissipate into thin air if we could all just learn to cooperate. But humans won't cooperate - and there's a reason why. Check out some of the trend-oriented books, such as Microtrends, that do a very good job of exploring why people continue to flee city life - pushing out further beyond the suburbs into even rural areas - for a look at the other side of the picture.
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on July 8, 2000
So I see this book in the library and, being suburban residue myself, I decide to read it. "Maybe I'll find myself in here." What I was expecting was some sort of theoretical analysis of why Americans choose (or are led to believe they choose) to live in suburbs, maybe a historical-sociological-psychological perspective etc. etc. This book is not that. Instead, it presents the reader with the series of external events that have led to the suburban status quo--nationwide dissemination of ill-conceived zoning regulations, specious reasoning regarding the results of street-widening, insecure Unionized fire chiefs, etc. I was tantalized when they hinted at an automobile industry plot, but it was not developed. To be honest, this book is probably more accurate and more pragmatic than the book I thought I was checking out, but I was prepared for an ideological critique and so found the actual contents a little dry. I think that the book suffers a little from this lack of ideological inquiry--often one encounters lines like, "Some people just genuinely prefer suburbs," lines which seem to function as patches that mask a lack of deeper analytical probing. Take this passage from p. 63: "For evidence, consider Disney World, where a disproportionately large number of suburbanites choose to spend their holidays. Why do they go there--for the rides? According to one Disney architect, the average visitor spends only 3 percent of his time on rides or at shows. The remaining time is spent enjoying the precise commodity that people so sorely lack in their suburban hometowns: pleasant, pedestrian-friendly, public space and the sociability it engenders." This seems like naive reasoning--the authors' explanation for why people in fact go to DW in no way necessarily follows, and no further argumentation is provided. For a much more incisive perspective on Disney World, read Jean Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation." The authors shy away from questioning anything more than the externals of laws and market forces, and it ends up as a surface analysis. Maybe that's all there is to it, but I am inclined to think not. One more thing: these people designed Seaside, Florida, which is where the Truman Show was filmed, and for a reason. I have been there, and it is frightening. This community is paralyzingly antiseptic. The level of perceived control is incredible: nothing is left to chance, nothing is unplanned; the aleatory has been banished. In short, an oppressive development. Everything seems contrived, made out of plastic. (Shivers). The authors seem like they have good hearts. What happened? The other neighborhoods they developed sound similar, too. I don't know what to make of it. Overall--lucid, almost too-lucid writing style; good symptomatic history of sprawl, but lacking in deeper analysis; their aim is worthwhile and valuable and so I can only criticize their means. Worth reading.
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on September 6, 2011
The authors have made up their mind to hate everything suburban, and do all they can to decry anything associated with the suburbs. For example, they love to deride the cul-de-sac, even doing so in the description. Cul-de-sacs serve a number of very important purposes, the most important of which is safety. There is a reason that urban areas block off street ends to turn them in to effective cul-de-sacs!

In the end, this book ends up being targeted towards urban suburban-haters, telling them what they want to hear. Probably a great read for them. Too many obvious holes to the rest of us. And to make it worse, they take 300 pages to get across what could have been done in 50.
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on May 21, 2005
It is very interesting to read Suburban Nation and look around you. Some parts are so on track, like highway widening, cul de sacs and non pedestrian spaces. But then there are whole parts that don't fit. Such as the income mix in places like Kentwoods, Alexandria and Georgetown that don't seem to be based in facts. Those are more well to do areas, a single parent who is a teacher sure won't be able to afford a place easily. Plus, in an urban area you have trade offs that are unavoidable. Fresh air vs. AC, dark nights vs. light pollution, quiet vs. noise pollution, and etc. Also the comment that the well to do should provide an example of how to live to the poor is insulting. There are an equal number of low lifes in all income brackets, and to get into a noblesse oblige mindset is the wrong approach.There were many times when I had to check the copyright to verify that it was a newer book. Yes, our suburbs built on farm land are a waste of open space and a better approach is needed. However, not everyone wants to live on 1/4 lots or in high volume housing. The bigger problem is with the McMansions that are being built, than the lot size. People (and not just farmers) have always lived in rural areas not served by mass transit. That is a lifestyle choice, and not a personality flaw. It is more of a problem that the suburban areas have been planned so poorly.
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on June 11, 2000
This book details various perceived suburban ills and postulates some ideas that will, in the authors' view, ameloriate the current built environment. A person reading this book will have some insight in the way we settle, however, if this is all they read they will to some extent be misinformed. It is interesting to note that the authors want to harken back to a time that could be called, "The Time Before Planners." The urban form that the authors seem to be most comfortable with was generally laid out and built before planning as a profession was in charge.
As a developer, I do agree with the authors ideas regarding mixed uses and building neighborhoods as opposed to subdivisions. It is my experience that the existing public works regulations primarily determine the final form of my work. The checklist in the appendix will be of some value to me. But I do not agree with the authors views that the automobile is the agent of the devil in their suburban hell.
Finally, I must object to the authors' notion that elected officials must "Do the right thing" and not listen to the citizens when various proposals come up for public hearings. The authors' hubristic subjectivity on this matter is overwhelming and can not stand unchallenged.
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on April 14, 2000
Has some good observations on the shortcomings of suburbia (but nothing we haven't heard before). Most intriguing are the discussions about different legal rules and zoning laws that prevent engineers from trying new designs that might work better.
A real weakness of the book is the lack of in-depth examination of what works in suburbia. Highly mobile Americans do have a choice and they still choose suburbia over rural or urban areas. Suburbia, for all its drawbacks, seems to offer a clean, safe environment with housing that remains a good investment. This work could have been better if its solutions built upon those strengths rather than lay waste to the neighborhoods where more than half of Americans live.
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